Not Just a Southern Thing: The Changing Geography of American Poverty

Thirty years ago, the states with the deepest poverty were all clustered in dixie. But the rest of the country has been playing catchup.

Pop quiz: Which state had the highest poverty rate in 2012—Alabama, South Carolina, or New York?

If you picked the Empire State, congratulations. You're a) right and b) apparently better than I am at looking past regional stereotypes. The Deep South has long been synonymous with deep poverty. But over the past 30 years, the rest of the country has been playing catch-up.

In 1980, the states with the worst poverty were mostly clustered in the Southeast U.S.—with Mississippi, Arkansas, and Alabama leading the race to the bottom.* (On the map below, light yellow states have the lowest poverty rates, dark red states have the highest).  

State Poverty Rates 1980

Three decades later, Dixie is still home to the nation's most severe poverty rates. But Alabama and Virginia have both improved. Meanwhile, impoverishment has grown across much of the Midwest, Northeast, Southwest, and Pacific. New York now has more poverty, officially, than South Carolina. Ohio has more than Florida. California and Nevada are now neck and neck with Alabama. 

State Poverty Rates 2012

Here's another way to look at it. At about 15 percent, the national poverty rate is 2 points higher than in 1980. Of the 16 states where poverty grew more than that, only two were in the Southeast. 

State Poverty Rate 1980 Poverty Rate 2012 Increase
Nevada 8.3% 15.8% 7.5%
Arizona 12.8% 19% 6.2%
Ohio 9.8% 15.4% 5.6%
Hawaii 8.5% 13.8% 5.3%
California 11.0% 15.9% 4.9%
Kansas 9.4% 14.0% 4.6%
Georgia 13.9% 14.0% 4.2%
Oklahoma 13.9% 18.1% 4.1%
Pennsylvania 9.8% 13.9% 4.1%
Indiana 11.8% 15.2% 3.4%
New York 13.8% 17.2% 3.4%
Colorado 8.6% 11.9% 3.3%
Rhode Island 10.7% 13.6% 2.9%
Wisconsin 8.5% 11.4% 2.9%
Missouri 13% 15.2% 2.2%
North Carolina 15% 17.2% 2.2%

So how did poverty stop being a Southern specialty? You've had, deindustrialization in the Midwest and Northeast. And you've had fast growing Hispanic populations, which tend to be poorer, in California, Nevada, Arizona, and Colorado (as well as North Carolina and Georgia, which could explain their presence on the list above).  Meanwhile, the Southeast has made some economic progress by attracting foreign manufacturing, among other efforts. 

Here, I'd like to add an important caveat. These numbers tell us about the prevalence of low-income households across the country. But, because the official poverty rate doesn't take into account some important government benefits, like housing assistance or medical care, they don't tell us much about quality of life. It may well be that New York has slightly more poor families than South Carolina, but they may well live a bit more comfortably. 

*I would love to go back further than 1980, but that's the earliest year available on the Census Bureau's historical tables

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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